The Culture Vulture Club
My sister once complained about the long vacations Europeans get. What do you do with six weeks of vacation on top of the many religious public holidays, long tea and coffee breaks, and short work weeks (only 35 hours per week) --- oh yes, and the paternal and maternal leaves, flexibility working hours and other perks?
You go culture, I say.
What do you mean by culture, you ask.
Just look around you and soak in the history, culture, architecture. Visit museums, exhibitions, galleries, gardens. Go to concerts, I say.
The first time I came to Europe, I was a budding 21-year old with a back-pack on a Eurail pass. I didn't know how to "culture" other than shop at outdoor markets and visit some must-see places in my Let's Go Europe guidebook. "Been there. Done that."
Some twenty-years later, culture is what I breathe, eat, and sleep. Ten years in London have "cultured" me into a person that lives somewhere between now and several hundred years ago.
I live in a small Dutch village which once housed a sister of Van Gogh. I cycle on cobbled stones between houses hundreds of years old. I take the train to Utrecht, a Roman city a couple thousand years old. I practise on Steinway Grand pianos donated by philanthropists to the oldest conservatory in the Netherlands in rooms with 4 metre high ceilings. I check the time from the clock on the Utrecht Dome tower, the tallest building for miles around. On a fine spring day, I have lunch in the ancient herbal gardens of the former convent.
Soon I will live in a monumental house next to a canal and watch the sunset on land as ancient as the Romans who decided to stop here. They thought the rest was swamp land. They never went beyond Utrecht. They never saw Amsterdam.
How can you appreciate culture if you don't understand it? If you've never been exposed to it, how do you get to like it? How do you develop a taste for it?
Take opera, for instance. I did not grow up with opera. The closest thing was musical productions. When a friend took me to "Cosi fan Tutte" in Holland Park in London, I was more concerned and annoyed about the noisy guests in front of me than what was happening in Mozart's opera. When he tried a second time to Janacek's opera Kata Kabanova, I became convinced that I did not like opera.
I was wrong.
Through little doses of opera --- in the opera extracts (excerpts) concerts given at the Utrecht Conservatory, concerts which I attended religiously to figure out the mystique behind operas (why they're always sold out in Amsterdam and why it's such a big deal), I have developed a liking for opera. Certainly studying the operas helps.
The same goes for concerts. I did not grow up going to classical concerts. I remember attending a few piano recitals and going to one chamber music concert of Schubert with my father when I was twelve. I played in concerts at school but that didn't count. Only at university in the US did I start going to free chamber music concerts.
The point I'm making is that culture appreciation requires time. It's not an overnight thing, particularly if you are not used to it. My brother once pronounced me a cultural snob. I never gave it a second thought until recently. Could people who are not culture vultures feel intimated by those who seek it actively? How can we help them understand what they see and hear? Art is to be enjoyed and shared ---- not a tool for the arrogant.
I once said to an artist friend that I didn't know how to enjoy a good painting. What do you look for? What are you supposed to see? She gave me a recording at the Matisse Picasso exihibition in London. From then onwards, I've been renting those headsets at exhibitions. To appreciate art, I decided, one must understand art. Thus art must be explained.
For that reason, I do my research before I go to a concert. I launched my Concert Programme Notes (call it Concert Previews) this month. If Hollywood uses previews and reviews for the blockbusters, why don't the classical music world?
30 March 2006